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EMERGENCY DEPARTMENT PHYSICIANS AND HOSPITAL FOUND NOT LIABLE FOR FAILURE TO INITIATE CHILD ABUSE REPORT

May 6, 2014 | No Comments
Posted by Beth Christian

The New Jersey Supreme Court has issued a decision finding that an emergency department physician and the hospital where he worked did not breach their duty to report suspected child abuse for failure to report a child’s ingestion of cologne.  The Supreme Court reversed an earlier decision of the Appellate Division, which had found that summary judgment in favor of the emergency department physician and the hospital was inappropriate because “a reasonable jury could find a probable inference from the information available to Dr. Yu at the time of treatment was that the child’s condition was the result of reckless or grossly or wantonly negligent conduct or inaction on the part of her parent or guardian.”

The facts which gave rise to the litigation arose when a toddler was brought to a hospital’s emergency room for treatment of what was determined to be accidental cologne ingestion.  The child was treated and released from the hospital’s emergency department to the care of her father.  Sometime later, the child was subjected to several incidents of child abuse, and she was removed from the care and custody of her father and stepmother.  After she was later adopted, the child’s adoptive parent filed a malpractice action against the hospital and the emergency room physician, alleging that the doctor breached the duty imposed by New Jersey’s child abuse reporting statute to report suspected child abuse.

The Supreme Court reversed the decision of the Appellate Division and held that the circumstances surrounding the child’s presentation at the hospital were insufficient to give rise to a finding that the emergency department physician behaved unreasonably in failing to report an incident of suspected child abuse.  The court found that the liquid that the 2 year old child ingested was a common item found in many homes and was not an inherently dangerous item, such as an acid, a poison, a gun or a non-household sharp cutting instrument that no reasonable adult would allow in any accessible proximity to a child.  The court found that “the idea that a toddler might find a way to get her hands on a common cosmetic or toiletry item is not equal to grossly negligent or reckless behavior on the part of a parent.”  The court expressed concerns that if it were to reach a contrary conclusion, every accidental ingestion case presenting at a hospital’s emergency department give rise to a mandatory child abuse reporting obligation.  The court concluded that the physician did not breach the reporting obligation set forth in New Jersey’s Child Abuse Reporting Statute in connection with the child’s emergency room visit and treatment for apparent accidental cologne ingestion.

This case has been watched closely by physicians who treat children, and had the potential to greatly expand the child abuse reporting obligations imposed on physicians and other health care practitioners.  The court appears to have taken a common sense approach which balances the State’s interest in protecting children from abuse without the imposition of greatly expanded reporting requirements upon physicians and other medical practitioners.

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